Did your history teacher ever mention the Spenceans?
They are up there with the Levellers, the Diggers, and the Chartists,
In terms of historical importance and present relevance,
But usually get just a cursory mention in the period 1815 -20,
The ‘Was Britain close to revolution?’ years of Spa Fields,
And the 1820 Cato Street Conspiracy to murder the cabinet -
But their forgotten, ignored or misrepresented influence
Is seminal and needs resurrection.
Their beliefs went far beyond
The usual historians’ calumny and misinterpretation:
‘Hare brained violent insurrectionaries, a minority group
Of marginal importance, riddled with government spies’.
The name of Thomas Spence should be mentioned in the same breath
As William Blake, John Clare, Percy Shelley, the Luddites, the Chartists,
And this is where the name of Allen Davenport comes in, and the village of Ewen.
One of ten children in a handloom weaver’s cottage: ‘I was born May 1st, 1775, in the small and obscure village of Ewen … somewhat more than a mile from the source of the Thames, on the banks of which stream stands the cottage in which I was born … I came into existence, while the revolutionary war of America was raging …’
He taught himself to read by learning songs; then saving up to buy printed versions: ‘I learnt, as most children do, a number of songs by heart, and … I saved all my halfpence and bought up all the printed songs that I could sing, and began with those that appeared the most easy … I proceeded to match all the words in my printed songs, with those I had previously stored in my mind … By this method, the eye became the pupil of the ear …’
He taught himself to write: ‘I got hold of a written alphabet … I tried my hand at black and white … and to my inexpressible joy I soon discovered that my writing could be read and partially understood’.
Tired of village life, a horseman and a patriot, he then joined the army, learnt his shoemaking trade (cobblers were well known as radical autodidacts, btw), then worked in Cirencester for four years, before making his way to London - marrying Mary, a shoe-binder, in 1806, and discovering the ideas of Thomas Spence: ‘During my stay’, the ‘man that brought our numbers [works of poetry] brought also a book, which he said ought to be in the hands of every Englishman ... I read the book, and immediately became an out and out Spencean. I preached the doctrine to my shop-mates, and to everybody else… This was in 1805.
’The revolutionary, republican notions of Spence were broadcast in a number of ways,
And it is tempting to think that this son of Gloucestershire helped chalk
The agrarian communist slogans that appeared on London’s pavements and walls:
‘SPENCE’S PLAN AND FULL BELLIES’
‘THE LAND IS THE PEOPLE’S FARM’
Spence also cast coins, medals or tokens,
Dispensing with the circumferential fidelities of Church and State,
‘If rents I once consent to pay
My Liberty is past away.’
And ‘Before the Revolution’ (an emaciated, chained prisoner);
Feasting and carousal on the obverse: ‘After the Revolution’;
Whilst one token laconically proclaimed:
‘War or Land’
(The war being a civil one, of course).
Allen Davenport found his voice with the inspiration of Thomas Spence,
He wrote for ‘The Republican’, Sherwin’s Weekly Political Register,
Penned republican poems …
There is more to follow on later posts, as we outline the remarkable life of Allen Davenport. But we are paying tribute to him and his history not just through words, but also through walking.
Kel Portman from Walking the Land, Jim Pinkney from Marah and yours truly walked from the source of the Thames to Ewen and then on to Cricklade on Monday November 23rd. This involved 14 muddy miles but was an absolute delight.
Kel has a unique eye for a picture and the landscape; Jim can talk for Cornwall and has a uniquely retentive memory; I know a bit about Allen Davenport. So we were three men without a boat (though Jim has journeyed from the Severn to the Thames in an inflatable canoe), walking through Gloucestershire and into Wiltshire.
The train journey was notable for meeting the Bishop of Gloucester (standard class) whilst the walk was memorable for the way we each memorialized the walk.
Kel’s peerless photographs are elsewhere. Jim’s commemorative stone for Allen Davenport is elsewhere (but will get to London sometime: see below). But Jim’s enthusiasm for the haiku is recorded below, as is Kel’s link about the walk. I don’t find writing haiku straightforward and I know I break some conventions, even whilst following the 5,7,5 syllable structure – but Jim has a real flair for this writing.
You can see from the below that Jim can capture a moment and an image in the landscape; my efforts are rather more about contextualizing the walk and placing it within a narrative.
Our next walk involves the train to Swindon; bus to Cricklade; walk from there to Lechlade; bus to Swindon; train to Stroud. I know all you Shelley fans are already thinking about Lechlade – 2nd Monday or Tuesday in January will be when about the next walk takes place.
More details to follow on the blog; and more details about Allen Davenport, too.
Jim’s haiku memories:
Young November Thames
First frost on the bridge
A muddy puddle crackles
At a toe’s hushed touch
Out of the stone womb
Spring, tree guarded, dew dripping
The infant pilgrim
Autumn fall lay still
Leaf tiling the clear young Thames’
Murmur of starlings;
Not one silly syllable.
Every one counts
A buzzard spies high:
The light fades and strides quicken
For the Cheltenham train
Untrained pencil stubs
Distract the crowded carriage
Early hours utter
Defused Haiku excuses
Jim scribbled these on to his rail ticket on the train whilst I sent the below as an email:
When haiku hiking,
Tread syllables in rhythm,
Through footpaths’ metre.
Late November Thames:
Rhyme and rime in cold pasture
Hoar-bark frosted oak.
Oxbow lake spindle berries,
Sluice, weir and millpond.
Where shadowed spinners,
And ghosts of hungry weavers
Point us on our way.
A Thames pilgrimage,
With a stone from Ewen Mill,
For a London grave.
Handloom weaver's son, alone,
Learning his letters.
A Clerkenwell radical,
Cobbling his wages.
The Davenport stone:
A name that’s etched for ever,
Not writ on water.
An eldritch twilight,
Starlings flash on water glass,
By ridge-furrowed fields.
Piers Plowman nods,
Then treads the moonlight mud-scape,
Beyond Time’s dark veil.
One stage completed,
On the path to Kensal Green,
Fourteen weary miles.
Postscript from Jim on the subject of patterns in the landscape, real and/or imagined: pareidolia ... hierophany haiku ... apophenia.